Digression is one of the joys of conversation, and one of the joys of writing. One of the vices of writing too, some might say. There are those for whom sticking to the subject is one of the great virtues of a speech. There’s a panel show on BBC Radio 4, Just a Minute on which the panellists must speak on a given topic for a minute without ‘repetition, hesitation or deviation’. This game, was, I think, inspired by a common old public school activity in which pupils would be caught out by their classmates for deviating from their given topic. I remember Holden Caulfield complaining about it in Catcher in the Rye. Teachers would have been exempt from this of course – and I remember my favourite teachers at school were those who would digress from the topic at hand to talk about something else that interested them in their subject. These days, what with the compulsory three or seven(!) part lesson structure being pushed in British schools and the ever-present spectre of assessment, there is scant time for interesting deviations from the curriculum in the modern classroom, though plenty of repetition.
Established writers don’t live under such strictures. Christopher Hitchens, for example, was a great digresser. His digression gives the impression that he is so knowledgeable and well-read that he almost can’t help taking his line of thought down little side-streets sometimes. He does this in his article about tea, commenting on the length of the winter holidays and the syntax of John Lennon before he really gets around to the main topic of the article. This is a less serious topic than many of his articles – tea-drinkers may disagree – but he is much the same when he is dealing with American foreign policy. It is as if no theme is too grand or important to preclude an interesting aside. His brother, Peter Hitchens, has much the same habit. In this article, he breaks off his disparaging analysis of Britain’s involvement in the Middle East to fondly remember some British Prime Ministers’ mispronunciations of foreign words.
Such digressions humanise a writer somewhat, and they allow a writer to talk about those innumerable interesting little things that might never justify a column or article of their own.
With Hitchens being such a prodigious digresser anyway (I’m talking about Christopher again), he is a good writer to guide us as to how digression is done. In general, it’s not done with commas in ‘How to Make a Good Cup of Tea’. Commas are rather used in their function of arranging and offsetting the clauses that are a part of the main line of argument. Dashes and brackets seem to be the order of the day. Here’s his opening line:
Now that “the holidays”—at their new-style Ramadan length, with the addition of Hanukkah plus the spur and lash of commerce—are safely over, I can bear to confront the moment at their very beginning when my heart took its first dip.
The parenthesis here contains a curmudgeonly sideswipe at the contemporary tendency to treat the last week and a half of December and the first of January as an extended holiday period. (The longer style dashes – ‘m-dashes’, dashes the size of ‘m’s – are characteristic of American word-processing, by the way, and your word-processor will do them for you if it’s using American English. Set your language to British English, and you’ll be given ‘n-dashes’ instead. In hand-written English there’s no distinction.) Notice that you need a dash before and after the interruption if the sentence continues after it. Here’s his next digression:
He used to correct her method of doing so, saying, “Yoko, Yoko, you’re supposed to first put the tea bags in, and then the hot water.” (This she represented as his Englishness speaking, in two senses, though I am sure he would actually have varied the word order and said “put the tea bags in first.”)
Is there any difference in how brackets and dashes are used here? There are a few, yes. In general, the shorter asides, asides about a single word (e.g. “holidays”) rather than a whole idea, are made with dashes. Digressions with dashes are not whole grammatical sentences, but function as clauses or phrases. Brackets are more often used for longer asides, and can even feature as separate sentences, as in the example above. You can use a parenthetic dash inside a bracket, which saves you the awkward (but possible) use of brackets within brackets:
Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do—and still does if you buy a proper tin of it).
There are many examples where both brackets and dashes would be equally as right-looking, but I think there is a difference in tone. Dashes are louder. Their asides are a bit rude, pushing their way into a text they are not strictly related to. That’s why we also use them for interruptions. Brackets are politer, and quieter. Their asides are sotto-voice, sometimes even slightly apologetic, or in Hitchen’s case begrudging:
Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist)
Though I’m with Hitchens on this one (and it’s ‘a history’ and ‘a hotel’ in my book too).
Tell me about your day (and don’t stick to the point).